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Meditations on ‘The Book of Questions’

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As midterms blow around us like unwanted leaves, our reading habits may suffer in the attempt to fend them off. In the interest of surviving midterms, books made up of shorter sections, which you can read in between problem sets or essay writing, can serve as succinct (and manageable) instigators of wonder. Chilean Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda’s bilingual poetry collection, “The Book of Questions,” translated by William O’Daly, does just that.  Each page offers the reader meditations on nature, science, love, history, and the human soul.

The questions that form the entirety of the book exhibit paradoxes, riddles and unanswerable suppositions, carrying in them the enigma of Japanese zen koans or the spirit of the Bible’s Ecclesiastes. Here are a few examples of Neruda’s playful, shrewd inquisitiveness:

“Where is the center of the sea?/ Why do waves never go there?”

Before we can even begin to answer these questions, we are lost in an embedded question: what could possibly be the center of the sea? These considerations may have never entered our minds, and we may never find an answer, but we can gain pleasure from entertaining this kind of nonsensical question.

“Do we learn kindness/ or the mask of kindness?”

In another section of the book, this couplet asks us a question which behavioral psychologists have been pondering for decades, but for which none have provided a settled solution. Like the wave couplet, Neruda’s questions help us see common phenomena (the sea, kindness) in a fresh light.

“Is 4 the same 4 for everybody?/ Are all sevens equal?/ When the convict ponders the light/ is it the same light that shines on you?”

In these paired couplets from the same page Neruda leverages the placement of seemingly unrelated images: mathematics and imprisonment. What could be more different? Despite their apparent differences, the couplets hint at a shared notion of “equality.” In simple math we take it for granted that four equals four, and that the nature of a seven does not change, no matter whether we’re counting seven apples or seven lions. Yet we use notions of “equality” when discussing human rights and punishments. Neruda invites us to ask whether the supposed justice systems of our countries, imposed on humans who all live under the same universal laws of light, space and mathematics, leads to the same perfect equality for humans that we find in abstract numbers.

Some pages present a through-line that the couplets share more evidently, as in the following set: “How is the translation of their languages/ arranged with the birds?/ How do I tell the turtle/ that I am slower than he?/ How do I ask the flea/ for his championship stats?/ Or tell the carnations/ that I’m grateful for their fragrance?”

Evident in Neruda’s probing is a love of nature and a curiosity that transcends logic or common sense, instead opting to nourish his desire to connect with the natural world. In fact, couplets traditionally signify communion and affection that extend beyond ruptures, whether those ruptures be between lines, human beings, or nature and the individual. Additionally, since each page can be read through in 10 seconds (20 if you count the original Spanish below the English), “The Book of Questions” can inject a daily dose of appreciation of the suspension of surety. Letting yourself “not know” allows a reprieve from formal education, which often demands laborious, protracted demonstrations of expertise. 

But Neruda does not only write about eternal subjects in nature that are independent of the public realm. Fans of Neruda will also appreciate references to his personal history and the history of certain countries, as in the couplet below: “And why did cheese decide/ to perform heroic deeds in France?”

It perhaps alludes to his time as the Chilean ambassador to France, and Charles de Gaulle’s famous remark that it is hard to govern a nation with 426 different types of cheeses. Many other examples abound, with subtle critiques of totalitarianism in regions ranging from Latin America to Hitler’s Europe.

Originally written in Spanish, “The Book of Questions” was one of Neruda’s manuscripts which was published posthumously, and it is thanks to the translator William O’Daly that non-Spanish speakers can enjoy this at once sad and jubilant collection. O’Daly is acclaimed for his translations of other works from Neruda’s late career. In an interview with the literary press Folded Word, O’Daly explains his stance toward translation. He says, “the musical integrity of a poem is… indistinguishable from, the emotional quality [of the poem]… When I manage to retain the essence of the musical integrity, I discover the emotional equality.” With regards to preserving Neruda’s voice, O’Daly believes it is hard to define precisely what an author’s voice is, but nonetheless, he says, he “work[s] to find an equivalent modulation of tone throughout the poem and most certainly a corresponding level of language.”

Of course, Pablo Neruda already finds followers outside his native Chile in Anglophone countries. Part of this is due to Neruda’s accessible subject matter, so often grounded in the sensual, natural world. Part of this is also due to how translators such as Robert Bly have presented Neruda to Anglophone readers as a poet of generosity and expansiveness, whose poetry is “intended as a gift.” O’Daly, himself, in the preface to his translation of the Chilean poet’s “The Separate Rose,” writes that his work has perhaps “translated Pablo Neruda’s generous spirit into our lives.”

At the level of the sentence, O’Daly tends to adapt Spanish word order and syntax to English grammar, favoring a more comfortable translation over one that corresponds perfectly to the original. For example, consider the lines “Or tell the carnations / that I’m grateful for their fragrance?” If the original was literally translated, it would render as, “And what do I say to the carnations thanking them for their fragrance?” He domesticates certain Spanish words that, if translated merely into their English cognate, would sound too lofty, too Latinate for the simplicity to which Neruda aspires. We see this in examples such as O’Daly’s translation of “la representación” as “the true picture.”

The linguistic manipulation of translators notwithstanding, Neruda’s emphasis on simple images often drawn from nature, even if their meanings are complex, allows for a quite accessible translation for anybody who finds themselves too busy for a longer work, but who still craves wonder, gentle uncertainty and the pleasure of words.

Contact Scott Stevens scotts7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.